Confusion broke out online in Japan recently as people weren’t sure what to make of a comment uttered by US President Barack Obama on 25 November. During a speech regarding immigration reform in Chicago he cited Japan as an example of a country which doesn’t “have problems with certain folks being discriminated against.”

In Obama’s mind, the remark must have been an innocuous comment meant to lighten the crowd. Little did he know that it would wind up mentioned in the Japanese press and through a chain of misunderstandings would lead some to comment: “Look at that. So he admits the evils of immigration after all!” It’s as if Aaron Sorkin wrote an episode of Three’s Company.

Although the actual speech was intended to talk about his immigration plan he opened by addressing the ongoing unrest in Ferguson and other parts of the country over a verdict regarding the shooting of a black teenager by a police officer.

Tokyo Broadcast System (TBS) News ran a brief article about the speech with the headline “Obama condemns ‘criminal acts in riots’” and focusing almost entirely on his Ferguson comments.

“Burning buildings, lighting cars on fire, putting people in danger by breaking their property… People who do that should be prosecuted.”
[TBS translation of Obama’s speech]

That part was pretty accurate to what the president said.

“Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk — that’s destructive and there’s no excuse for it.  Those are criminal acts, and people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminal acts.”
[Remarks by the President on Immigration –]

However, in the immediate paragraph after, TBS quoted the Obama as saying, “In countries like Japan where there is a majority of Japanese people, problems like this aren’t likely to happen.” This led many to comment about Obama’s seemingly bizarre allusion to Japan in reference to the Ferguson incidents.

“Why is he bringing Japan into this?”
“Because Japan is the only monocultural developed nation.”
“It is a matter of race, but more importantly it’s a matter of education.”
“It’s because in Japan, people don’t suddenly get shot dead.”
“Stupid, it’s because of gun control. Riots don’t break out in Japan because we don’t have guns.”

In their defense, the TBS report was rather misleading. Obama’s Japan comment actually came about ten paragraphs later in the speech as he attempted to segue from Ferguson to his immigration plan. Here is the quote with a little more context.

“I appreciate your patience, because I know you came here to talk about immigration. But this is relevant, because part of what America is about is stitching together folks from different backgrounds and different faiths and different ethnicities. That’s what makes us special. (Applause.) And, look, let’s face it, sometimes that’s hard. Sometimes that’s hard to do. But it’s worthwhile, it’s worth doing.
If you go to — I was just traveling in Asia — you go to Japan, they don’t have problems with certain folks being discriminated against because mostly everybody is Japanese. (Laughter.) You know? But here, part of what’s wonderful about America is also what makes our democracy hard sometimes, because sometimes we get attached to our particular tribe, our particular race, our particular religion, and then we start treating other folks differently. ”
[Remarks by the President on Immigration –]

Putting aside the numerous Koreans, Chinese, businesswomen, mentally/physically disabled, and burakumin to name a few, all of whom would beg to differ with Obama’s assessment of discrimination in Japan, the guy was clearly only trying to make a light-hearted transition from one political hornet’s nest to another. Also, the crucial words TBS used “problems like this” could easily mislead people into thinking he meant that immigration had led to the Ferguson rioting.

Nevertheless, another faction of Japanese society grabbed the kernel of truth said to exist in jest, and popped into a nice fluffy popcorn ball of xenophobia.

“Obama’s just stating the obvious.”
“If you bring in large amounts of the poor, it’s no wonder there’s a deterioration of security.”
“Immigration in every country causes similar problems [as America].”
“So, is he implicitly telling Japan not to open immigration?”

Although it’s highly unlikely this will become an international incident, it’s interesting to see how a simple comment by someone in a position of power can send ripples to the other side of the world. That being said, there is something I found from reading Barack Obama’s speech that he really must be held accountable for: The guy totally overuses the word “folks” and really must be stopped.

Source:  The White House (English), TBS News via Itai News (Japanese)
Video & Image: YouTube – The White House

Here’s the full speech with the word “folks” used about once every 45 seconds on average (15 times in 11 minutes).